Frontier Food and Poor Provisionsby John Scott on Jun. 07, 2012, under Uncategorized
When we think of food in the Old West, what comes to mind is cowboys sitting by a campfire eating beans and gnawing on jerky. They drink copious amounts of coffee, and toss the grounds into the fire before crawling into their bedrolls. All that was pretty standard trail fare because it was easy to acquire and it stored well. On the frontier, folks had more of the “eat to live” than the “live to eat” mentality. Therefore, they didn’t concern themselves so much with variety. One famished 1870′s traveler wrote: Neither spices, sauces, nor seasonings are necessary to accommodate them to the palate. Our appetites need not nursing. The richest condiments are the poorest provisions.
Those who braved long trips on stagecoaches were also not treated to luxurious fare. Station stops were sparsely outfitted. Mark Twain writes in Roughing It: He sliced off a piece of bacon for each man, but only the experienced old hands made out to eat it, for it was condemned army bacon which the United States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage company had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and employees.
Of course, after a long journey, the cowboys and stage passengers would eat hearty at a town restaurant. A cowboy named Teddy Blue wrote: Do you know what was the first thing a cowpuncher ordered to eat when he got to town? Oysters and celery. And eggs. Those things were what he didn’t get and what he was crazy for.
Oysters? You mean they didn’t just eat steak and potatoes like Andy Devine in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
Tarnation, no! Thanks to the Transcontinental Railroad, food in the Old West could now be more lavish. In bigger towns, one could find a veritable smorgasbord to please their palates. Mexican food, Chinese food, fresh baked goods, even ice cream could make up this cornucopia of cuisine. Below is a “Sunday Dinner” menu from the Occidental Saloon in Tombstone:
Chicken Giblet and Consomme, with Egg
Columbia River Salmon, au Beurre Noir
Filet a Boeuf, a la Financier
Leg of Lamb, Sauce, Oysters
Loin of Beef, Loin of Ham, Loin of Pork, Westphalia Ham, Corned Beef, Imported Lunches
Leg of Mutton, Ribs of Beef, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Russian River Bacon
Pinons a Poulett, aux Champignons
Cream Fricasse of Chicken, Asparagus Points,
California Fresh Peach, a la Conde
Loin of Beef, Loin of Mutton, Leg of Pork
Apple Sauce, Suckling Pig, with Jelly, Chicken Stuffed Veal
Peach, Apple, Plum, and Custard Pies
English Plum Pudding, Hard Sauce, Lemon Flavor
And we will have it or perish.
This dinner will be served for 50 cents.
Many folks today like to recreate these foods. Recipes from the pioneer era still exist, and cooks alter them for today’s palates. One pastime that illustrates this is chuck wagon cuisine. Old West aficionados cooking succulent meals in dutch ovens over a campfire has become very popular. Festival of the West in Scottsdale even puts on an annual contest. Let me tell you, if you haven’t tried dutch oven cobbler, you haven’t lived.
So, when you swing into the drive-thru at Sonic during your summer road trip, remember the travelers and pioneers in the Old West. Toast them with the french fry they never got and be happy it doesn’t taste like condemned army bacon.